Wednesday, August 20, 2008 

'Friends'… your new enemies

or how ‘closed’ may become the new ‘open’…

I have a friend, who up until recently, was quite a good friend, but then something strange happened. His dark, mischievous sense of humor, which had always been one of the qualities that made him unique and often terribly funny, suddenly discovered a vehicle that offered him something akin to supernatural powers. Like the power to transform himself into anyone he wished, or to be multiple people at the same time. The power to gain the confidence and trust of strangers by morphing into the identity of their trusted friends. On top of this, he had the power to anonymously wreak social havoc, distress and disorder, only to then be able to disappear like a thief in the night.

How did he obtain these supernatural powers? He signed up with Facebook, and slowly but surely became a Facebook “Troll”. Unfortunately, he is not alone. There are many individuals that exploit the unintended gaps within the fabric of sites like Facebook to impersonate and humiliate people that they don’t know.

One alarming aspect of this phenomenon is that these people are able to conduct this activity only by making quasi-partners of legitimate web-sites and services like Facebook and GMail, which is often used to generate fake email addresses to qualify for additional user accounts on social networking sites.

So, with human nature being what it is, one thing that we can depend on is that the trend will continue and there is very little that can be done about it. This then leads to the conclusion that in many ways the web has reached a point akin to what is known as the ‘tragedy of the commons’… meaning that the common area that became popular has now become too popular. So popular that in fact many of the benefits have been spoiled.

Its clear that many people will regret profoundly, releasing their private pictures and personal details innocently on the web, because once released, often they may never be able to be completely retrieved.

Which brings me to the idea of ‘open’ vs ‘closed’… Is it just me, or does the idea of a closed personal network to exchange information with friends seem so much more appealing than an open one?

I think there is a huge area of opportunity here, to appeal to ‘non-consumers’ of open-networks. These would be networks that people used to conduct genuine conversations with real friends from the real world. They would not necessarily be exclusive of strangers, but rather protective of relationships. New acquaintances could be invited in based on genuine qualification, again, in the real world.

My guess is that this period in the first decade of the 21st Century will be characterized by recollections of how so many people got burned by being ‘too open’.